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Canberra Raiders v Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs
Canberra Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

It’s the final throw of the dice for the resurgent Raiders who must sever Canterbury’s 12-game winning streak if they are to stay alive in the race for a spot in the top eight.

Meanwhile all-conquering Canterbury can guarantee their first minor premiership since 1994 if they take down the Green Machine in the nation’s capital (ironically Canterbury lost that year’s grand final to Canberra). And securing the JJ Giltinan Shield will be a first for coach Des Hasler – despite guiding Manly to two premierships he was unable to deliver them the silverware during his eight years on the northern beaches. 

The Canterbury juggernaut continued with a hard-fought 23-22 win over the Wests Tigers in golden point last Friday – although they were a little lucky to escape with the verdict after Jonathan Wright was incorrectly awarded a try after an illegal obstruction in the lead-up was not identified by (subsequently sacked) video ref Sean Hampstead.  

No question their attack remained white-hot; however their defence showed some signs of fraying. Canterbury have toiled hard to miss the fewest tackles all year (just 27 on average) – consequently Hasler would be concerned by the 46 misses they compiled against the Tigers. 

Meanwhile Canberra will stick to the disciplined game plan that has seen them win four of their past five matches to keep their finals hopes flickering. They’ll keep it simple, laying a foundation through the forwards before shifting it wide to their potent outside backs. Significantly Canberra have respected possession more than any other team in the comp over the second half of the season – they’ve committed just nine errors per week since Round 13.

However it’s definitely do or die this week; given they have a poorer points differential than the Wests Tigers and Broncos they will need to win both of their remaining games to have any chance of leapfrogging into the playoffs. 

In a boost for the Raiders, workhorse forward Tom Learoyd-Lahrs has recovered from a hamstring strain and will take his place on the interchange bench.

No dramas in the Bulldogs camp, with Des Hasler naming an unchanged line-up.

Watch Out Raiders: Ben Barba’s impact on this game will be unavoidable – the key will be to limit the damage. The Raiders simply have to contain Barba before he takes more than one stride – as Blake Ayshford discovered last week when he failed to collar the mercurial No.1 then looked on as Josh Reynolds dotted down just seconds later. Barba is the competition’s top try-scorer (with 20) plus he leads all players for tackle busts (146) and ranks second to Akuila Uate for line-breaks (with 23). Easy to see why some bookies are already paying out on Barba winning the Dally M Medal – they don’t want to lose any more money taking additional bets.

Right-edge attackers Josh Reynolds and Krisnan Inu will be a handful for Jarrod Croker and co. – the Raiders’ left-side defence has leaked an NRL-high 47 tries so far. The ’Dogs will have noted the ease with which Shaun Kenny-Dowall ploughed through his opposite to score last week. (Incidentally fleet-footed Reynolds has become just the fourth Bulldogs pivot to score 10 tries or more in a season; he follows in the footsteps of Braith Anasta, Roy Hasson and Terry Lamb).

The Raiders need a quantum improvement in their ability to shut down second-phase play. Canberra concede 12 offloads per match (second most) – which doesn’t auger well given the ’Dogs have tallied an NRL-high 21 line-break assists from offloads. 

Danger Sign: If the Raiders don’t react as a group when the Bulldogs bust them open they’ll spend plenty of time watching Krisnan Inu take conversion attempts. Only the Cowboys have made more than the Bulldogs’ 781 support plays, with Ben Barba (123) their major contributor. It won’t be sufficient for one or two Raiders to race across in cover when the Bulldogs streak away – all their players need to make a special effort to try to spoil the plays.   

Watch Out Bulldogs: The competition’s leading point-scorer Jarrod Croker will be aiming to set the record for the most tries by a centre in the lime green jersey. Croker is currently tied with Laurie Daley who crossed for 16 tries in 1989; he trails Mal Meninga’s 1990 mark by just one. 

Not so long ago we were all lauding Josh Dugan as the most exciting and dazzling fullback in the game but Ben Barba’s influence over a two-year period, coinciding with a spate of injuries to Dugan, has seen the Raiders No.1 drop off the radar. However, he gets the chance to remind everyone of his talents here in a head-to-head clash that will be as enthralling as it will be entertaining. Dugan ranks second for territorial gain among all fullbacks with 164 metres a match and his fearless running has yielded him 74 tackle busts from his 11 games in the No.1 jersey. The Bulldogs can’t get complacent when Dugan goes looking for the ball at first receiver 10 metres out from their try-line.

Danger Sign: Keeping Josh McCrone quiet will be crucial. Understated as a playmaker McCrone has kept pace with some of the bigger names in the league, crafting 15 try assists and 19 line-break assists for his troops. He’ll also look to catch the Bulldogs napping himself – as he did when he pinned his ears back and accelerated from 20 metres out to score the last time these sides met. 

David Shillington v Aiden Tolman: Raiders captain David Shillington is happy to have both Dane Tilse and Tom Learoyd-Lahrs back in the fold this week and together the trio will lay the groundwork for their speedy backs to flourish. Last time these sides met Shillington averaged nearly 10 metres a carry from 13 hit-ups; he’s averaging 121 metres a match and his 26 offloads are just four short of Sam Kasiano’s benchmark 30 to date.  Meanwhile only Aaron Woods and Brent Kite have started more games at prop than tungsten tough Tolman, who averages almost 17 runs and 127 metres per match. Throw in 31 tackles and you can understand why plenty of pundits raised their eyebrows in surprise when he dropped off the Origin radar earlier this year.   

Where It Will Be Won: The Steeden will get a workout through the air and along the ground as both sides look to exploit the gamut of attacking kicks. No side has scored more tries from kicks than the Bulldogs who have bagged 25 so far – although the Raiders are just one four-pointer shy of that mark. As for holding out attacking kicks, Canterbury have surrendered 18 tries to the boot, the Raiders 14. Ben Barba has shown a weakness under the high ball at times this year so expect Sam Williams and Josh McCrone to test him out.

The History: Played 58; Bulldogs 33, Raiders 25. The honours are even four games apiece from their past eight clashes. The Raiders hold an 11-7 advantage in the nation’s capital.

The Last Time They Met: Fullback Ben Barba ran riot to cross for four tries as Canterbury defeated Canberra 36-22 at ANZ Stadium in Round 26 last season.

Barba’s final four-pointer four minutes from fulltime saw him draw level with South Sydney’s Nathan Merritt to become the equal leading try-scorers for 2011 with 23 apiece.

It was a bittersweet victory for the ’Dogs who finished the scheduled rounds on 28 competition points alongside eighth-placed Newcastle, but missed a spot in the finals series due to a vastly inferior differential (75 points the final difference). 

However, it wasn’t all plain sailing for Canterbury who trailed the Raiders 12-8 at the break and went six points further behind when Josh McCrone scored off a bomb with half an hour remaining. From that point on though it was mostly all blue and white, with Barba crossing for two tries in the space of 60 seconds for a 20-18 lead with 54 minutes gone.  

Retiring Bulldogs captain Andrew ‘Bobcat’ Ryan earned a huge cheer from the crowd when he crossed for a try in the 65th minute – then sprinted behind the in-goal and jumped into a Bobcat the Canterbury marketing department had arranged to be displayed as a symbol of his final NRL game.

The emotion of that moment seemed to sap the Bulldogs of their energy levels, with Raiders winger Reece Robinson crossing for a soft try on the left edge to make it 26-22 with nine minutes remaining.

However Barba put the issue beyond doubt when he scored his fourth try of the afternoon off an assist from Jamal Idris down the right edge (it was one of the dreadlocked star’s final touches in a Canterbury jersey), before Josh Morris rubbed salt into the wound with a 90-metre intercept try one minute from fulltime.

While Andrew Ryan exited the NRL a winner unfortunately the same could not be said for veteran Canberra captain Alan Tongue who similarly played his last first grade game.

Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Dan Eastwood; Video Referee – Russell Smith. 

The Way We See It: We keep waiting for them to falter but the Bulldogs keep coming up with the goods. Surely fatigue will catch up to them sooner rather than later? With so much at stake the ’Dogs could be on the receiving end of an ambush, especially if the Raiders play with urgency and self-belief. But man for man and on exposed form the blue-and-whites demand the nod. Bulldogs by six points.

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (NSW & ACT), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 10.30pm.

*Statistics: NRL Stats
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